I was thinking about apologizing for the topic of my sermon this evening, but I’ve changed my mind. The image that comes to mind is a dog chasing after a freight train, and what the dog would do if it actually caught the train. At best, the dog might end up chewing on some small part of the train he could sink his teeth into, say, like a dangling rope. But he would probably be oblivious to the sheer magnitude of the unchewable. I had thought to make excuses, but then I thought, well, no: it’s always like that. Every sermon is a bit like a dog trying to catch and sink its teeth into something far too big. Preachers can be good at creating the illusion of certainty or clarity or comprehensiveness. But such illusions should be met with a certain amount of skepticism. So, I’ll carry on.
My topic this evening is what I think it means to be catholic (with a small c); and my jumping off point is a verse from Acts we heard a few moments ago: “When [Paul and Barnabas] arrived, they called the church together and related all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles.” [Acts 14:27] The book of Acts is largely about just that: how the early church went about bringing people of different ethnicities and languages into the fold. Paul defined his mission as such—Peter would bring the gospel to the Jews, Paul to the gentiles. Which is to say, to everyone else. “Everyone else” is what “gentiles” means. There are the Jews, also referred to as Israel. And there is everyone else, the gentiles, the people of all other nations and languages and cultures.
The writings of ancient Israel come to us as a choir of voices, not always singing in the same key. Among many other things, we find two somewhat contradictory strains of thought. One is what we might call the “election” strain: i.e., that the Jewish people are elected or chosen or set apart for special status before God. The other is what we might call the “universalism” strain: i.e., that God’s love, care and compassion extend to all people, and, indeed to all God has created. We see this in many places, including this evening’s Psalm: “The Lord is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works.” [Psalm 145: 9]. And the Psalmist a few verses later calls not just all Israel, but all humanity to the worship of God: “…let all flesh bless his holy Name for ever and ever.” [v. 22]
This becomes Paul’s project: to bring all flesh, including the gentiles, into the fold. It’s through Christ, he asserts, that the dividing wall has been removed and there is now the possibility of one humanity in Christ [Eph. 2:14]. His intention was not to start a new religion, but to draw all human beings, Jew and gentile, into one body, worshiping the same, one, true God.
Paul’s vision of the Church is a very expansive idea. This one body, united in the worship of the one God, made possible by Christ, would be a universal body: the whole human race. Which is to say, “catholic”. Catholic in the original sense of the word: having to do with the whole. From Greek kata holos, pertaining to the whole. Paul’s vision of the church, and I think we could say God’s vision of the church, has about it what we might call an “expansive catholicity”.
Current realities can be discouraging—human beings seem as fractured and factionalized and divided as ever. This time next week I’ll be in Jerusalem again, where everything that could possibly be fractured seems to be—a microcosm of the human condition, perhaps. But one thing has become clear over the last couple centuries: God thinks and acts across vast expanses of time—at least what seem to us vast expanses of time. Even though God only knows when and how God’s vision will be fulfilled, I’d like to share what I think are some of the distinctive hallmarks of catholicity. When the church’s impulses are characterized these ways, I think we’re at least on the right track (to continue the train metaphor).
One hallmark of expansive catholicity would be the impulse toward inclusivity: of different races, cultures, ethnicities. You can’t be “catholic” without being inclusive: it is a contradiction in terms. When the church is exclusive, it is no longer moving toward catholicity. There is, naturally, a tension between inclusivity on the one hand and particularity on the other in any given Christian community: every congregation will inevitably have its own particular personality, its own way of being church—and rightly so. You can see it here, I think: we have a particular—even peculiar!–way of being and worshiping. But there is also here an authentic impulse toward inclusion—many have told us so. The challenge for any Christian assembly is to be both true to itself and also welcoming of and inclusive of the “other”. Or, to put it another way, the challenge is to be both local and global simultaneously. Very difficult to get the balance just right.
Secondly, to be catholic is to be concerned with the whole range of human endeavor, not merely what we might think of as “religion”. Catholicity is a comprehensive concern for the physical and mental and spiritual wellbeing of all people and concern for the whole person: catholicity is holistic: kata holos. Expansive catholicity embraces concern for the whole range of human endeavor: the arts, the sciences, leisure pursuits, the playing of games!—all the things that belong to that “abundant life” promised in Christ. The Church is being catholic when it values and seeks to understand the place of all human endeavor in that abundant life in Christ. Otherwise, Christianity shrivels up into “mere churchianity”.
And one more hallmark: an impulse of openness to more truth, even a hunger for more truth. In today’s gospel, Jesus says that the Spirit will come and teach them everything. Elsewhere he says that when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide us into all the truth [John 16:13]. “All the truth” is a lot of truth! We can’t bear all of it at once, he says in John 16, so the Spirit’s revelations will unfold in the future. The spirit of expansive catholicity is one that draws us into God’s future, because that is where the fullness of all truth is being revealed.
Catholicity is concerned, to be sure, with what is called the original deposit of faith; but there is also a gravitational pull to that which is yet to be revealed: the whole truth needs a whole lot of time to unfold. Kata holos: pertaining to the whole. Catholic truth, whole truth, is past, present and yet to come. True catholicity, God’s expansive catholicity, may be grounded in the past, but it is not a liturgical museum; nor is it merely the preservation of past perspectives and pieties. True catholicity has about it a certain exploratory impulse, a hunger for new understanding. What is God saying now? What will God say tomorrow? And the next day?
Kata holos, pertaining to the whole: catholic. We are part of a whole; the whole is part of us. Our lives are part of something unimaginably “whole”. This unimaginable “whole” is part of us. This as yet unimaginable wholeness is Christ: the Way and the Truth and the Life, who was and is and is yet to come. To live in a catholic way is to live in this wholeness and toward this wholeness which was and is and is yet to come in its fullness. Paul was unapologetically visionary in his thinking. So, why shouldn’t we be? Even if we can seem like puppies chewing on a bit of rope dangling from the great train we think we’ve caught.
All things are in him and through him and for him. The whole is in him—kata holos. And he in us; the whole that is in him is also in us. The dog chews as best it can on a bit of rope—only dimly aware that the whole “train” is enshrined within the mystery of his own being, and has been all along.
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